Megan Padilla
Megan Padilla

Panama City Beach in Florida’s panhandle has been attracting families to its sugar-white beaches on the Gulf of Mexico year-round since its first hotel was built in 1935.

But in recent decades, the throngs of college-age spring-breakers who flocked to the city each year nearly redefined it as a booze-fueled, anything-goes beach bonanza of bad behavior. In 2015, residents, business owners and local government drew a line in the sand that mayor Mike Thomas declares “unmoveable”: No more alcohol on the beach during the month of March.

The ban was announced in 2015 and first implemented in March 2016. The results, if evaluated by March numbers, were dismal: Bed tax collection dropped 41%, and some businesses, according to Thomas, reported earnings down by as much as 80%.

Despite those disheartening numbers, Thomas insisted the new rules will stand.

“I’m afraid that March will be down for three or four years,” he said. “I think people are waiting to see if we’re serious, if we’ll hold the line on the new rules. We have to prove ourselves.”

The mayor is quick to point out, though, that this was not a trial or an experiment. “The time for redefining who we are is passed. We are a year-round family destination.”

The city is working hard to drive home that point, aggressively planning events year-round that appeal to families or adults without kids and launching an ad campaign in excess of $1 million to promote family-friendly spring travel.

Statistics prove they are on the right path. Tourism development tax collection for 2016 showed a dip of less than 1% from the previous year, demonstrating that the March losses were made up during the other 11 months, a clear indication that Panama City Beach was successfully attracting visitors year-round. (The development tax is a 5% bed tax collected on short-term vacation rentals, including hotels and condominiums.)

While June and July have traditionally been the city’s high season, the spring and fall shoulder seasons are seeing impressive gains, too, and that is not by accident.

For instance, November, which Thomas points out as being a “tough month to move the needle,” has seen astonishing growth in the last two years with an emphasis on growing existing events such as an ironman competition and a classic car show as well as the launch of Beach Home for the Holidays, a slate of family-friendly events bookended by Thanksgiving and the New Year’s Eve Beach Ball Drop, designed to establish Panama City Beach as a multigenerational holiday destination. “With fun-filled events throughout November, including the Florida Ironman, Emerald Coast Cruizin’ and Beach Home for the Holidays, visitors are finding plenty of reasons to spend the Thanksgiving season and create holiday memories with us at the beach,” said Dan Rowe, Visit Panama City Beach president and CEO.

The energy dedicated to attracting visitors in November paid off. In 2015, the collection of tourism development tax collections for Panama City Beach during the month of November increased nearly 31% over the previous November, with an additional 9% growth for the same month in 2016.

As part of its efforts to shed its naughty spring-break reputation, VisitPCB is staging a number of events in the coming months aimed at the adult and family markets.

The Emerald Coast Boat & Lifestyle Show was held earlier this month, and a spring edition of the successful fall event Emerald Coast Cruzin’, a vintage and show-car expo, is being held March 8 to 11.

UNwineD, a Southern garden party, presented in association with Garden & Gun magazine on March 24 and 25, features fine wine, craft beer and spirits from around the world plus locally sourced culinary creations and an outdoor concert by Grammy-nominated American folk-rock band the Avett Brothers.

The UNwideD partnership with Garden & Gun reflects an aligned demographic, according to Rowe. “Southern Living meets Field & Stream,” he said. Rowe is excited about the opportunity to introduce the city to the magazine’s readers who may not have considered it a destination of interest in the past. “The Avett Brothers band reflects Panama City Beach as a dynamic destination,” he said.

Special events continue through the spring, with the Seabreeze Jazz Festival from April 19 to 23 and the second annual Pepsi SpringJam Music Festival, April 28 and 29. Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker will headline that two-day country and pop festival.

The lobby of the Sheraton Bay Point Resort.
The lobby of the Sheraton Bay Point Resort.

Apparently, investors are noticing Panama City Beach’s potential for growth, too. Leading the way is the Sheraton Bay Point Resort, which opened on Nov. 1 after a $30 million renovation of a former Marriott hotel. According to Jess Johnson, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, the beach resort is awaiting its official AAA appointment but is anticipating a 4-diamond designation, which would mark a first for the area. There will be a total of 320 rooms when the golf villas, adjacent to the resort, open on April 1. The resort is situated on St. Andrews Bay, away from the main beach strip, but offers nonstop ferry service to Shell Island Beach and shuttle service to Panama City Beach.

Other upcoming hotel projects include a new 156-room Holiday Inn Express directly on the beach, and the Gulf-front Hampton Inn & Suites with 182 guest rooms to open in Summer 2017, within walking distance of the Pier Park shopping and entertainment center. It’s significant to note that these midrange properties are being built on the water, something no longer possible in high-density tourist destinations such as South Florida.

The city’s Northwest Florida Beaches Airport opened in 2010. The airport is served nonstop from Chicago, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis and Atlanta by Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines.

More info at Visit Panama City Beach.


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